If Malay immaturity and underdevelopment (backwardness) are so blatant in areas where we dominate (politics and public administration), imagine the situation elsewhere. Again, we do not need expensive consultants’ reports or the academics’ graph-laden presentations to expose that sorry reality.
Consider our marginal role in the economy. Stroll down any street in any town, and that fact would be jarring and obvious. Even if we were to mandate that those business signs be “Malaynized” or in Malay, that would not alter the sorry reality. It would only make the situation worse by camouflaging the problem, as is happening in Thailand and Indonesia. Guess who owns Malaysia’s most successful conglomerate Berjaya (Malay word meaning success)?
If those Malay leaders and civil servants were to have a leak in their home faucets or their cars break down, the plumber or auto mechanic who respond would more likely be a non-Malay, or even non-Malaysian, just as it was half a century ago. At another level, every year thousands of houses expropriated from non-Malay developers and then offered to Malays at substantial discounts remain unsold.
Then consider our young. The overwhelming majority of unemployed graduates are Malays. They are not so much unemployed as unemployable, reflecting the quality of local public institutions, again under Malay leadership, by statutes. We Malays are also overrepresented in the dysfunctional categories, from drug abuse and HIV infections to abandoned babies and broken families.
The Malay Financial Genius
Those glaring and embarrassing realities would preclude any self-respecting Malay leader from jetting around in luxurious private jets at public expense, or have their children own plush penthouse suites in London and palatial mansions in Beverly Hills. These Malay leaders should be embarrassed. Instead they, from Najib on down, flaunt their flamboyant lifestyles. They lack maruah; they know no shame.
Malays are proud of such “glorious” government-linked companies (GLCs) as Khazanah (a holding company), Petronas (the giant oil company), and Sime Darby (a conglomerate). Those companies are Malays only in terms of their senior leadership and employees, not ownership. Being GLCs, they could easily change their character with a change in the government, as with the state GLCs in Penang. This Malay pride is misplaced for another reason. These GLCs have failed in their mission to spearhead Malay entry into the business world, its reason for being. Instead these GLCs have been debased into a cesspool of continuing corruption. 1MDB is only the latest, as well as most expensive and egregious.
These GLCs suck up scarce public funds. Few are profitable. Again, like the money pocketed by corrupt officials, the lost opportunity for those precious funds is enormous. Think of the good had those billions diverted to UMNO kleptocrats were instead used to better libraries and laboratories in rural schools!
The picture is equally ugly with education. Again, we do not need highfalutin reports to tell us that we are far behind. When Ungku Aziz led the University of Malaya many decades ago, it would consistently rank high; today, well, it is still ahead of the University of Timbuktu, but only slightly.
The sorry decline of our universities is but one example. Another is more simple and direct. In the 1980s I could still find some Malay students at Stanford and other elite American campuses. Today there are as rare as dew in a mid-Malaysian morning. Further back, when I was at Malay College in the early 1960s, it was still preparing students for entry into universities. Today those students have to go elsewhere for their matriculation.
Malay College started its first IB matriculating class in 2011, a full decade in the planning and nearly three decades after the college discontinued its Sixth Form. The college has an impressive governing board, with Raja Nazrin as its chairman. Despite having such luminaries, the pace of change was glacial. Imagine at lesser institutions! While IB everywhere is the top choice for students, not so at Malay College. Its students prefer going elsewhere.
Yet when we peruse the statistics in such publications as the Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report, we are assured that we have made great progress. Worse, we believe such reports! Consider the one sector where Malays pride ourselves in having a heavy presence–public transportation. During my youth, nearly all public bus companies were controlled by non-Malays, except for the occasional ones like the one plying in the northeastern states and the old Sri Jaya Company (now defunct) in Kuala Lumpur.
Then there was the Malay Transport Company serving my village at Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan. Granted, its service was erratic but at least there was a service. Today that company is long gone and the village is now without any bus service, erratic or otherwise.
In the 1980s matters seemingly improved, with many more “Malay” bus companies. That however, was achieved not through the initiatives of Malay entrepreneurs but through fiat. The government forced existing non-Malay companies to “re-structure” and include Malay partners.
The few savvy Chinese businessmen who saw that as an opportunity to cash out their investments by jacking up the values of their companies came out like bandits, quite apart from earning the enduring gratitude of Malay elite. That in turn smoothed the way for these Chinese businessmen to do even more lucrative businesses with their new masters.
The few arrogant holdouts came to regret their decisions. The owners of the Foh Hup Bus Company that plied the busy and highly lucrative Seremban-Kuala Lumpur route did not wish to share their pot of honey. They also smugly believed that Malays were not suitable business partners. With the completion of the new highway between the two cities and the license for that route awarded to a Malay enterprise (by then Prime Minister Dr.Mahathir Mohamad), Foh Hup’s market collapsed. The company got to keep its jar of honey alright, but the bees were taken away.
Despite that jump start, today Malays are back to square one. Bus companies throughout the peninsula may be in Malay hands, but the system is broken down, mechanically and financially.
Malay underdevelopment is not just relative (as compared to other groups and nations) but also absolute. Meaning, as compared to a generation ago, we are today making even slower progress if not actually regressing. The examples cited here may not mean much in the greater scheme of things but they are emblematic of our overall inadequacies and underdevelopment. Our backwardness is worse when compared to the First World, and widening. That is hidden as our leaders continually compare us to the likes of Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. It is also hidden because of the vibrant contributions from non-Malays. Malays are deluded into thinking that those achievements were ours too.
I am not revealing anything new much less profound here. The only difference is that I offer a different approach in analyzing and solving these problems.
Our leaders are heavy into sloganeering, with such strident calls as revolusi mental, glokal Melayu, and Ketuanan Melayu, that is, when they are not busy blaming our culture and our innate nature, as well as our lack of unity and our ‘straying” from our faith. My approach would first require us to have an open mind so we could view our problems from different perspectives and not be trapped by our current preconceptions. The solutions would then be much easier to find.